After a yearlong delay, a replacement director, heavy reshoots, and multiple editors, The Wolfman is probably about as good as it could possibly be. It gets quite a bit right, adding up to a solid B-horror offering that delivers more than a few pleasures during its lean, 100-minute runtime. It’s probably going to be remembered as a missed opportunity, but it succeeds as a loving, loopy (lupe-y? Sorry, no more puns) tribute to ’40s horror tropes and good ol’ fashioned monster movies. Benicio del Toro stars as Lawrence Talbot, returning to his ancestral home on the moors to find that his brother’s gone missing. Forced to spend time with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins, hilariously re-hashing his cracked-out mad scientist Van Helsing from Coppola’s Dracula), and his brother’s hot wife (Emily Blunt), Lawrence actually seems to welcome the chance to wander the country at night, spying on gypsy camps and looking for clues as to the whereabouts of his brother. Trouble is, that’s a good way to get bit by a werewolf. Ruh-roh.
What with Talbot’s family troubles and the fact that his sister-in-law looks a great deal like his dearly departed Mum, original director Mark Romanek would have probably put together a more legitimately scary and more heavily, ironically Oedipal version of The Wolfman. But Universal clearly wanted a straight-up creature feature, and helmer Joe Johnston turns out to be the perfect choice. Nobody’s in the theater to see all that hoary old subtext anyway. We want to see the werewolf. And the best thing about this Wolfman is that there is no damn werewolf. It’s a Wolfman. He stands on two feet and wears pants, Incredible Hulk style. And considering the genre’s been dominated by more animalistic werewolves for decades, it’s about time we saw a guy in a Victorian-era tux going all hairy and wrecking house.
More to the point, Johnston’s extensive effects background has paved the way for a dynamic use of CGI and Rick Baker’s makeup to create a couple of excellent transformation sequences. CG is filling in the blanks here, but it’s mostly practical, and filmed by Johnston with classic cutaways to the face and to various extremities. What’s more, The Wolfman is very, very… wet. I was expecting a more sympathetic take here, about a man who tries to deny his inner monster. That’s there, certainly, but the film understands that there has to be a horrible inner monster to struggle against, and to that end this wolfman is a vicious killing machine, shredding through crowds of proper Londoners and leaving a path of bloody entrails in his wake.
The film, blessedly, has a sense of humor, too. Hugo Weaving shows up as rational Detective Abberline (the same man that hunted the Ripper), basically playing it like Agent Smith as usual, but all of his “mark my words”-ing and pipe smoking and top hatting brings a welcome levity. The Wolfman clearly has affection for the old Universal horror crop and werewolf films in general, staging no less than three separate expository scenes of toothless old British country folk holing up in the pub and warning people to stay off the moors. All that said, the film is still a mess as a narrative, with none of its ideas about man’s primacy or its Oedipal themes really amounting to anything at all. (Although those themes are completely trite to begin with, so who cares?) Moreover, the reshoots and hasty editing have trimmed The Wolfman down considerably. Johnston is in a huge rush to get you to the monster stuff, and who can blame him? He’s dutifully produced a bit of good, pulpy fun. It’s bloody, funny-but-not-campy and mostly well assembled.